Warsaw (by bus from Prague to Vilnius)

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Travel has started to make airports less fun, so we’ve started planning transit connections via bus and train. The first big test of that was getting from Prague to Vilnius. We left ourselves an extra day, and decided we’d take a bus to Warsaw, have one day to relax, and then hop on another bus to finish the journey. Two 8+ hour bus trips would be enough to find out if trading airport annoyance for longer travel time was worth it. And another chance to spend time in Warsaw would definitely be welcome.

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Warsaw’s Barbican; Warsaw Mermaid in the Old Town Square

Poland was a favorite stop last year, but in our two weeks in Warsaw we didn’t get to do quite everything we’d hoped. We still needed to find the mermaid statue and check out the viewing terrace at the Place of Culture and Science.

The mermaid was easy to locate. We’d passed nearly right by it last year, though it had been blocked from sight by dining tourists in the Old Town’s central square. The Palace was a couple blocks from our Airbnb, so this time we had no excuse to avoid it.

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Modern skyscrapers and the Palace of Culture and Science

The Palace towers ominously amid all the newer glass-and-steel buildings of Warsaw. A ‘gift’ from the Soviet Union, it still seems out of place, surrounded by modern architecture. It is massive enough to house multiple theatres, a college, and museums in addition to the viewing deck. It was quite hot on the afternoon we went, but the 30th floor had a constant breeze. Since our apartment lacked air conditioning, we were content to relax at altitude for a while.

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On the road: stork’s nest, roadside chapel and cross, lots of fields

Eighteen hours on buses, even spread out over two days worth of trips, is a lot of sitting. From Prague to Warsaw was the prettier trip – we went through the hills on a two-lane highway and then descended on to flat plains full of farms and fields. Dozens of white storks were in freshly mown hay fields. Occasionally we’d catch sight of one of their massive nests on top a power pole or platform built specifically for them. The edges of small towns (and even many farmsteads) had ribbon-bedecked crosses marking boundaries. Small chapels served as a spot for prayers for a safe journey. Between Warsaw and Vilnius the journey was more monotonous. Fields and trees made up the scenery.

Since we had the time, the bus was the right choice. Far cheaper than flying, we didn’t have to worry about luggage weight limits and could take kitchen supplies with us. It was easier to get to and from our apartments as well. Rather than planning out an early-morning airport arrival, we could just head to the bus stop in the center of town via tram or a cheap Uber ride. No need to waste two hours at an airport or go through long lines at security. Plus, all that extra transit time let me catch up on reading and podcasts! We’ve planned future stays in such a way that plane travel should become less frequent, taken over by more relaxed bus rides.

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Wilanow

Week two in Warsaw was more relaxed, in part because it was raining much of the time. Fortunately we eked out one bright day to spend at the Wilanow Palace. The last stop of the bus line running by our apartment was literally at the palace gates, so it was easy to get there even though it was on the other side of town. It turned out that the Palace uses timed tickets for crowd control (something a couple of other Warsaw museums could take a cue from). We ended up with two hours before our entry slot. Luckily the Poster Museum and the park grounds around the Palace were free for the day.

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Wilanow Palace and its grounds

The Poster Museum had some of the most up-to-date displays I’ve ever seen in a museum – items from supporters of Charlie Hebdo and from Black Lives Matter protests. The parklands are massive – befitting a royal residence – and have both formal flower gardens and tangles of trees and reedy ponds. It is a pretty popular place to have wedding photos taken – it was a Monday and there were multiple bride & groom sets posing. Honestly, the day was so nice that wandering around the grounds was as interesting as the palace itself.

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Inside the palace… I quite like the faux baby leg coming through the ‘skylight’

Wilanow is one of the few important buildings in Warsaw to escape total destruction by the Nazis. A plaque just a few hundred feet from the gates mark a spot where the Home Army prevented the demolition crew from reaching their target. The damage it did receive during WWII has been repaired – most rooms are decked out as they would have been in the 1700s. A few are much plainer (presumably sections hit by bombs or shrapnel), and are now used for gallery exhibitions. Currently it was set up with tea and chocolate serving sets. The best part was old quotes about how healthy chocolate is from essays published hundreds of years ago when it was still an exciting and newly available product.

The restored rooms are incredibly decadent – velvet wallpaper, muraled ceilings, gold paint, lots of art. I particularly like the portrait of the woman rolling her eyes. I believe she is supposed to be either looking heavenward or to a lover in another portrait that would have been placed above her. But she really seems as thought the whole ordeal of sitting for the artist is just too much for her afternoon. Upstairs, a small domed ceiling had a sky painted in the oculus with a couple of cherubs perched on the edge. But someone had the brilliant idea to fit a sculpted cherub leg onto the mural to make it look more 3 dimensional. I want to give the person who thought of this a hug… the random baby leg dangling from the roof made my afternoon.

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Public arts

Elsewhere around the city, we stumbled on more public art. I don’t know what the yellow stones are for (a wooden platform just out of the shot was still being constructed), but it reminded me of the rocks I used to decorate my goldfish’s bowl. The rocket cow gets a gold medal for most interesting sculpture? statue? assemblage? It was hiding in a rather subdued-looking business park that had other surprises, including some incredibly fresh and tasty sushi whipped up by Polish chefs.

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Some favorite – kebab chips, dill chips, beet-soup- flavored instant noodles and some very USA-looking snacks, and a light Polish Riesling

Sushi aside, snacks in Poland raise the bar for the rest of the world. The following chips flavors exist: dill, kebab & onion (reminiscent of a pita kebab), grilled kebab, Oriental salsa, every kind of paprika, multiple kinds of cheese. Not to mention spiral ketchup Cheetos. And the chocolate… I will be craving both E. Wedel and Goplana (which I discovered this afternoon) candy bars for a long time to come. A non-zero amount of my time in Krakow will be spent tracking down more sweets. Of course, that will only be the time that I am not stuffing my face with pierogis. The frozen cheese & potato pierogis we sometimes bought in Seattle are a pale shadow of the real thing, but more on that in a later post.

Warsaw Historical Sights

Our first week in Warsaw, Poland seemed to be all about the city’s history. I’ve heard Warsaw described multiple times as a medieval city that happens to be less than 50 years old. I think that’s pretty accurate. It certainly felt like the most modern city we’ve been to so far on the trip, even though it looked as the Old Town Market Square could have been built 300 years ago (I mean, it was, but then…).

In a lot of ways, the city has been a continuing construction project for the last 70 years. Even now, tower cranes are everywhere. Expats who have lived here just easily point out the numerous skyscrapers they’ve seen built.

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Towers on the Barbakan, window in St. John’s Archcathedral.

Despite all the growth, the past is never far away. There are memorials – statues, monuments, plaques – on essentially every street. The best known is probably the statue of the Little Insurgent, commemorating children who aided – and sometimes fought and were killed alongside – the participants in the Warsaw Uprising. Most unsettling to me was the sheer number of simple plaques on walls or benches dedicated to massacres or battles that took place there less than a lifetime ago. The 72nd anniversary of the beginning of the Uprising was August 1, and so many were decorated with white and red flowers and flags.

To contemplate each one and the suffering a sentence or two encapsulates is crushing. It make me wonder about the difficult choices ordinary Varsovians made each day. A more optimistic route is to remember the intense patriotism and bravery and to see today’s rebuilt Warsaw as a memorial in itself.

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Little Insurgent Monument, Doors of the Cathedral of the Polish Army, gardens near the Palace.

One subtle reminder caught me particularly off guard. Walking through Krasinskich Park I happened to look down at a patterned patch on the sidewalk: inlay showing the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. The same boundary line runs not too far from our apartment, well over a mile from the other wall. It is hard to fathom the city within a city forcibly separated from the outside world but home to hundreds of thousands. And of course, as the Ghetto was emptied, a huge portion of the citizens were trained directly to death camps (from a station that stood just about three blocks from our apartment). Thousands more were murdered by starvation, disease, and violence.

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Also not far from our apartment is the peaceful Powazkowski Cemetery. Though much survives from before the War (though sans records), some of its stones are still carry bullet scars. With the Polish people oppressed by foreign systems, this became a place for artists to focus their talents and it is full of beautiful statues. Families here take remembrance very seriously and there were often fresh flowers and candles, even on older graves.

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In the Powazkowski Cemetery and a synagogue ceiling at the Polish Jewish History Museum.

To get a better idea of the events behind sites around Warsaw, we went to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (the winner of a well-deserved Museum of the Year award) and the Uprising Museum. Both are incredible.

The Jewish History Museum has interactive exhibits and covers a thousand years. Naturally there is a focus on the Holocaust, but there is a definite effort to show cultural revivals happening today as well as the deep history of Jewish culture in Polish society. My favorite part was the beautiful replica of the Gwoździec Synagogue’s ceiling.

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Warsaw Uprising Museum

Warsaw’s Uprising Museum is similarly visitor-involving. There are recreations of sewers that insurgents carried messages and weapons through, a replica air-drop bomber, and immersive sound and video experiences. It drove home hardships of the Uprising and the betrayal experienced when the Soviet Army did not come to their aid. It was fascinating to learn that, in spite of the fighting, daily life went on. Newspapers were published and cafes were open in some areas. Insurgents saw themselves as the restoration of a Polish government, even holding a stamp-designing contest, printing postage stamps, and delivering mail.

Finally, a less-heavy note: some art from around the city. Winged ponies on a palace lawn are almost as happy as it comes.

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City arts. Ok, so the last one is just a fun staircase.